Archive for Tag: teaching profession

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Are You an Effective Teacher?

By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels
jonestamara@hotmail.com

I just love attending teaching conferences. I love getting together with former colleagues, bumping into the “superstars” of our profession in the hallways, sharing ideas with enthusiastic and knowledgeable teachers, checking out the publishers’ latest offerings, and, best of all, attending informative and motivating sessions. This year, I attended the TESOL 2012 Convention in Philadelphia. One of the best sessions I attended was a plenary led by the former TESOL president, Christine Coombe, called “Teacher Effectiveness in ELT.” (Dr. Coombe is an expert in this area. In fact, she even co-edited the book, “Evaluating Teacher Effectiveness in EF/SL Contexts” in 2007 with Peter Davidson, Mashael Al-Hamly and Salah Troudi.) Now, I am always looking for ways to be a better teacher. Aren’t we all?

In her plenary, Dr. Coombe suggested that many of the things that we would expect to impact teacher effectiveness actually don’t. Things like the age of the teacher or the reasons why we became teachers don’t have any impact whatsoever on whether a teacher is effective or not.

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Thursday, May 3, 2012

Looking for Learning

By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels
jonestamara@hotmail.com

Way back at the beginning of the academic year, my school provided a professional development session called “Looking for Learning.”* We watched some videos, did some group work and listened to a speaker talk about his company’s approach to teacher observations. I think no one really likes being observed by fellow teachers or supervisors. It’s nerve-wracking and opens teachers up to criticisms couched as helpful suggestions. Even though I am always looking for ways to improve my teaching, I do get nervous about inviting other people into my classroom. I wasn’t sure the observations demonstrated by the “Looking for Learning” speaker were for me.

The Observation

My job is to prepare a multi-level, multi-age group of students for their mainstream junior high school classes. One of the biggest obstacles has been trying to figure out exactly what the students are learning and expected to produce in these classes. Ideally, I would have a free hour here and there to observe other teachers, but I was literally teaching 6 periods a day with no free time to drop in on my students in their mainstream classes. So, when the Head of Secondary announced that he was looking for volunteers to observe a teacher in a pilot of the “Looking for Learning” process, I might have actually pushed people out of the way to sign up.

First, all the teachers who were participating in the observation met first with the presenter, who had been brought back to follow up on his original session. He explained the process and repeatedly stressed that we would not be paying any attention to the teacher but rather looking for evidence of learning. “Right, right,” I thought. “Who goes into an observation and then ignores the teacher?”

The following day, I met again with the presenter and the other observer for a few minutes before we went into the music class. During that meeting, we were again instructed not to pay attention to what the teacher was doing. We went into the class and stood at the back while the teacher kicked off the lesson by eliciting from the students the main points of the previous lesson. Then, the students started to work on their compositions on the computers. At that point, the observers started to move around the room and talk to a variety of students. I managed to speak with 4 or 5 in the 20 minutes we had left for the observation. I asked them what they were doing, what they had done the lesson before, what they learned that was new, and if they found it easy or difficult. I got lots of different answers, and I wrote down the students’ names and, as accurately as possible, what they said. As I got caught up in interviewing the students, I forgot about the teacher entirely.

The next day, we met again, this time I was with the presenter, the other observer and the teacher. In this meeting, we simply reported back what the children had said. Upon listening to our notes on one student, the teacher had to place him/her on a grid to say whether the child was “learning,” “treading water” or “drowning.” At times, the teacher was not surprised by what we reported a student had said. At other times, the teacher had not anticipated the comments of a student. For instance, one student, a girl the teacher considered one of the top in the class, actually said she found the computer program that they were using in the class quite difficult. The teacher hadn’t known that before, as the student had always produced quality work.

In the end, the strangest thing about this observation was that we did not comment on the teaching at all. We were not permitted to offer any kind of judgment (positive or negative) about the lesson or the approach of the teacher. As observers, we were merely reporters, trying to find out if the students were learning or not.

Move Over “Do you Understand?”

The benefits of this approach are, in my mind, twofold. First, we all know that the students learn both because of us and in spite of us; just because we have a great lesson plan, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all the students in the class are learning. Second, even though I have an overall idea of my students’ abilities (especially since I have a comparatively tiny class and I see the students often), I don’t always know I would be able to completely accurately assess my students “learning” at any given moment of a lesson on any given subject.

How has this changed my teaching? Not drastically, really. I am still pretty much the same instructor that I was before I stepped foot in the music class. However, I do try to make it a regular practice to stop mid-way through a random lesson (whenever I think of it, actually) and ask a few students what they are working on and if they find it easy. I have learned that it is not enough to ask students IF they understand; I have to ask them WHAT they understand.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Teaching Ghouls

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

newjgea@aol.com

There were spooky rubber spiders strewn across the walls, and eerie paper witches on little wooden broomsticks hanging from ceiling.  It was a pre-Halloween workshop for our English tutors and a scene fitting to the topic of discussion that evening, namely, An English Tutor’s Worst Nightmare: What It Would Be and How We Could Banish It.

The workshop began, and after only the slightest of promptings, the several tutors had pieced together a quite sad and scary picture.  The image centered on a tutee, and a sorry one indeed.  This student was fifteen minutes late to the tutoring appointment, distinctly rude when making the acquaintance of the tutor, sharply offensive in body odor, completely lacking in written work and other materials, and, during the tutoring session, generally unresponsive to the tutor’s advice as well as hyper-critical of the respective teacher’s instruction.

With this horrifying specter before us, we proceeded to the workshop’s corrective phase (or perhaps better the exorcistic phase) and began to brainstorm ideas on how to cope with such a situation effectively and professionally.  Composed of some bright heads, the group quickly generated a good little list of measures…

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Monday, July 18, 2011

How to Be a Popular Teacher

By David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English
Japan

As anyone who has ever worked in a language school or other educational institution will know, it is a fact of life that some teachers are more popular than others. Come to think of it, anyone who has ever been to school will know that! I remember from my own school days that there were huge differences in the way the teachers were regarded by pupils. Some were loved and respected, while others were despised and ridiculed. Of course, it is not the case that the most popular teachers are necessarily the best teachers, and teaching should never be a popularity contest, but it is a matter of common sense that a teacher who is popular (or at least, not unpopular) with his or her students will probably find it easier to be effective in the classroom.

Like most teachers, I would like to think that I am generally popular with my students. Having said that, I am reminded of a survey in Britain that found that almost 80% of drivers believe that they are better than average. I suspect that a similar result would be found if language teachers were asked to assess our own popularity!

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

What Do a Zoologist and a Teacher Have in Common?

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
jonestamara@hotmail.com

I was reading an article in the January 2011 edition of O Magazine recently about a zoologist, Laurie Marker, who is working in Namibia to help save the cheetah from extinction. You might wonder what a zoologist in Africa could possibly have in common with an English teacher in Belgium. Well, not much, really. But, one thing that she said in the article really resonated with me. She was talking about how she came to this place in her profession, and she concluded by saying, “I don’t take what I do lightly.”

I don’t take what I do lightly.

Those words have stuck with me for weeks now. I believe they perfectly summarize how I feel about my profession and my career. However, I spent some time thinking about exactly how I demonstrate that I don’t take what I do lightly. What have I done and what do I do to show my dedication to English Language Teaching?

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Monday, January 3, 2011

Can a Teacher Motivate Every Student?

By Dorothy Zemach
ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Teacher Trainer
Eugene, Oregon
Email: zemach at comcast dot net

Like many teachers, I have seen a lot of movies about teachers. Many of the movies, especially those “based on a true story,” have a similar theme: A smart young teacher goes to a poor, inner-city school, faces a class of recalcitrant students, each one displaying a different attitude problem, and through her (or his) unwavering dedication to the students as people and ideals of education as a whole, leads the class to success. I like these kinds of stories. They inspire me as a teacher, and when I show them to my classes, they inspire the students.

A good example is the classic 1988 “Stand and Deliver,” based on the story of Jaime Escalante, a high school teacher from inner-city Los Angeles. In one of the more moving scenes, Escalante talks to his class of poor, racial minority students about the challenges they face:

“When you go for a job, the person giving you that job will not want to hear your problems; ergo, neither do I. You’re going to work harder here than you’ve ever worked anywhere else. And the only thing I ask from you is ganas. Desire. And maybe a haircut. If you don’t have the ganas, I will give it to you because I’m an expert.”

And he does give them the desire. He goads them, urges them, threatens them, praises them, rewards them, yells at them,… and he takes them from their failing status in his remedial math class to passing the notoriously difficult AP Calculus exam.

(Any student who has ever taken the TOEFL will cringe in sympathy watching these students take that test.)

It’s every teacher’s dream, isn’t it? To be able to supply motivation. And to some extent, I think we can. Every class is a sort of sales opportunity, and you sell your subject area and even the minute details, such as the importance of distinguishing count and non-count nouns.

How responsible are we, though, for every student’s motivational level? We might see them for 90 minutes a week, or three hours a week, or in some rare intensive class, even 10 hours a week. That’s still a small slice out of a student’s life that encompasses work, family, friends, hobbies, romance, and much else that we cannot affect. Sometimes―just sometimes―what we teach in English class is NOT the most important thing going on in their lives, and we need to accept that. Motivation can also be affected by a student’s character, personality, and state of mental and physical health. That’s a lot for one English teacher to cope with.

To the extent that it’s possible, we should of course motivate students as individuals and the class as a group. I don’t think it’s possible to list techniques that “work” for motivating others because it depends too much on the personality of the individual teacher as well as on the specific class and students in question. However, I do think that the teacher’s overall level of enthusiasm for her subject and class is infectious―and that is something that every teacher can work on.

When you fly, there’s no more chilling moment for a parent than when you hear that announcement that in the event of an unexpected loss of cabin pressure, you are to secure your own oxygen mask before assisting your children. Anyone can understand the wisdom of that, but you know in your heart how tremendously difficult it would be to not help your child (or, really, anybody’s child) first. It’s a similar situation with our classes.  Our energy level affects the students.

You can’t motivate your students if you yourself are exhausted, burned out, in poor physical health, overworked, in a bad mood, or unsure of the value of what you’re teaching.

I would argue then that one very good way to motivate your students is to ensure that you do not assign homework faster than you can grade it; that you get around eight hours of sleep a night; that you use your weekends as work-free periods; that you eat protein with your breakfast every day; that you exercise regularly. These are areas of someone’s life that you do have control over, because it’s your life. When your life is running smoothly, you’ll be more likely to have the energy and enthusiasm to lead, cajole, or prod your students into finding their desire.

Finally, I’d like to recommend a different sort of movie about teaching, “The Emperor’s Club,” based on the short story “The Palace Thief” (Ethan Canin). Truthfully, I don’t know if this was a popular movie or not―I never heard of it in theaters in the US and have never seen any reviews, but I watched it on three different airplane trips, sometimes more than once, so I came to know it well. Mr. Hundert, the teacher, works in an expensive private preparatory school, teaching a class of motivated, hard-working students. Enter a new student, a poor-little-rich-boy type of much promise and intellect, but no motivation and of course the requisite poor attitude.

Hundert tries everything he can to motivate this student, at the expense, in fact, of a more deserving but less flashy student who does not present himself as “troubled.” I’ll throw in a bit of a spoiler, because what’s important about the movie is not the plot line, but the more subtle dynamics of personality. The troubled rich kid succeeds in life―but not in the right kind of motivation, nor in appreciation for education. Hundert is left for years to question his decision of spending a disproportionate amount of energy on this one student. Could he have been reached in another way? Is it possible to reach every student? What students are pushed aside when you reach out to the most glamorous troublemaker? Those are good questions for both a teacher and a class to discuss.

This article was previously published in the Think Tank section of ELTNEWS.com: The Website for English Teachers in Japan
http://www.eltnews.com/discussions/thinktank/archives.html

Monday, December 20, 2010

Observations For Teachers and Supervisors

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
jonestamara@hotmail.com

Very few words strike fear into the hearts of teachers like “Do you mind if I stop by and observe your class next week?” Being observed, either by a supervisor or a colleague is rarely a completely comfortable experience. It is natural to be nervous and, when something goes wrong, it is natural to have a few moments of panic. However, if done with tact and care, observations can be a really positive experience for both the teacher and observer.

I’ve been on both sides of the clip board, so to speak. As a beginning teacher, I observed my more experienced colleagues; as a more experienced teacher, I have been observed by my supervisors and by other teachers; and as a Lead Instructor, I observed other teachers, both new and experienced. I have never failed to learn something from any of my experiences.

For Beginners

As a beginning teacher, the opportunity to observe more experienced teachers was an invaluable accompaniment to the theory I was studying in my CELTA/RSA Certification. I was able to see the methods in practice and decide for myself what I wanted to try and what I might be comfortable with. Teaching can be a very isolating profession, and observations help to bridge the gap between a new teacher and his/her field.

For More Experienced Teachers

As a teacher, although I don’t look forward to being observed (who does?), I really did appreciate the thoughtful comments of my former supervisor, whose opinion I respect very much. I looked at the observations as an opportunity to learn from my supervisor’s many years of classroom experience. Her comments were usually largely positive and the suggestions were clear and based on examples of my behavior in the class. (In my case, they often had to do with slowing down during instructions, something I still struggle with.)

In my previous school, the observer was required to complete a form with plenty of space for comments. After the observation, the teacher and observer scheduled time to go through the form together. I valued the verbal feedback and I was given a chance to explain the choices I had made in the class.

Some teachers may worry that something will go wrong. They are right; it might. I once observed a teacher who sat on a wet chair in the middle of her lesson. She had to excuse herself to dry off her pants. These things happen. (They happen to me all the time, in fact.) As an observer, I was more interested in how she handled the situation quickly and gracefully. In observations myself, I have neglected to queue up the cassette tape and forgotten essential pieces of an activity. Again, these things happen. The important thing is to move on and realize that they have most likely happened to the observer at some point, too.

For Supervisors

As an observer, I have also learned a great deal from my experiences. Teachers often scramble to show the flashier parts of their lesson plans, the games and interactive activities. But I also really enjoy watching how teachers handle the mundane daily tasks, such as roll call and homework checks. I first learned the great benefits of writing the lesson plan on the board in an observation of a less experienced teacher. (Even though I have been teaching for a while, it is possible for this old dog to learn some new tricks.)

In order for the observation to be successful, the supervisor has to be in a position of legitimacy. Trying to offer suggestions to a teacher when you have little or no teaching experience yourself will inevitably cause anxiety. Also, just as with grading papers, the feedback sandwich is important: one compliment, one suggestion, one compliment. (Observations are a great opportunity to boost a teacher’s self confidence.)

Finally, I strongly believe that it is important to offer the teacher a chance to defend his or her own choices. They may have a reasons for what they are doing that isn’t immediately apparent to you. Also, supervisors need to keep in mind that (thankfully) not all teachers have the same style. Your noisy, lively class management style might work for you, but another teacher might be just as successful with a more subdued approach.

As I said, being observed is rarely a completely relaxing experience, but there are a lot of potential benefits. In my current teaching situation, we don’t have any formal observations at all, and I have to say that I really miss the feedback and the opportunity to learn.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Guilt-Free Private “Conversation” Lessons

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
jonestamara@hotmail.com

In addition to classroom teaching, I have also taught private lessons for most of my career. Although I felt justified in charging the going rate for tutoring children or teaching specific grammar or pronunciation lessons, I had always felt a twinge (albeit an extremely small twinge) of guilt when taking someone’s hard-earned money for an hour of “Conversation Practice.” My time is valuable to me, of course, but I sometimes found it hard to charge someone to talk about things I talk to my friends about for free.

In the past few years, however, I have had three experiences that have helped me reconcile the fact that I am, indeed, earning the money that private students seem to happy to pay me: I taught, I learned and I read.

I Taught (my Friends).

When a group of my friends were dissatisfied with their English lessons, they asked me if I could teach them privately once a week. Specifically, they wanted more Conversation practice. At first, I wasn’t sure about how it would work. I was their friend. Was it right to take their money just to sit around and talk? However, after a few weeks, it became apparent that I was doing much more work during our lessons than I was when we went out to eat together.

First, I came to our lessons prepared. I planned our time together, I brought activities and lists of interesting questions to prompt conversation, and I gave them homework to reinforce troublesome grammar items or to teach conversational language such as phrasal verbs and idioms.

Second, during the lesson, I wore the hat of the teacher, not the friend. I corrected the grammar and pronunciation errors I heard (both on the spot and by writing the errors down and correcting them later as a group), something I would never do when we went out for dinner. I also gave mini-grammar lessons as the need arose, and I could see they felt more comfortable asking questions than they would in a social situation.

I Learned (from a Friend).

However, it wasn’t until I decided to start private lessons to boost my French conversational skills and vocabulary that I really learned how valuable one-to-one Conversation practice really is to a student. My teacher, Isabelle, is also a friend. We chat about things like family, food and books, all the great topics. In this way, I get one hour every week devoted solely to my French. I don’t have to apologize for my mistakes, and I don’t have to self-consciously hurry through a halting sentence because I think she could say it better in English. Instead of writing my mistakes down, as I do with my students, Isabelle writes the corrections, along with new vocabulary and tricky grammar. Being on the other side of the table, so to speak, I know that Isabelle is worth every penny I pay her for her time.

I Read (in Voices).

Kristina Noto recently published an article in IATEFL’s Voices newsletter called “One-to-one lessons become ‘121 Professional feedback sessions’.” In it, she outlines some strategies for successful and meaningful private lessons, or “sessions” as she calls them. During the session, Noto recommends that the student or, in her words, the “client” guide the conversation. She also suggests correcting only pronunciation errors on the spot and asking for clarification when communication breaks down. Grammar errors should be treated, according to Noto, in a following feedback session.

After the session, Noto reads through her notes or listens to her recording of the conversation. From this, she types up a feedback sheet for the student. “The feedback sheet is a way for the learner to have a record of the lesson, review the vocabulary, and have a space in which to have a second chance to correct the sentences with errors.” (Noto, 2010, page 10) She divides her feedback forms into 4 sections: Vocabulary Learned, Pronunciation, Phrases to Make Better, and Positive Points.

Private lessons can be a significant investment for students, both in terms of time and money. I have always felt a burden to make sure that the students’ individual needs are met, even more so than in a classroom setting. However, as Noto points out, this means that private lesson teachers may need to invest more time than usual in planning and writing up feedback. In fact, she says that for every hour of lesson, the teacher works 2 hours in reality, and that is nothing to feel guilty about!

Noto, K. (2010) One-to-one lessons become ‘121 Professional feedback sessions’, Voices, pages 9–10.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Is the Customer Always Right?

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
jonestamara@hotmail.com

“We aren’t happy with our new English teacher.” This was the emphatic opinion of several of my friends who study at the same institute where I teach English. After listening to a few minutes of venting, I suggested they speak with the teacher about their concerns. They felt they couldn’t do that, so my second suggestion was that they meet with the director of the program. They did complain to the director, who spoke to the teacher, who then felt undermined and insecure for the rest of the semester.

This experience is a consequence of the student/customer divide. As teachers, we often think of the people our classes as students. We are the experts, and our teaching is informed by current and past methodologies, our own experience as language learners, and our cultural backgrounds and beliefs. Increasingly, however, in the minds of our administrators and, often, of the students themselves, they are customers. They have paid money to be in the class, and they have certain expectations about what they will learn and how they will be taught.

Not Always!

Yes, to some degree my students are customers. I work hard to meet their needs and expectations. However, ultimately, I am the teacher, and I make decisions that they may not agree with, but I believe are for the best. For instance, several years ago, when I was a much less confident instructor, I taught an Advanced Grammar class. On the first day, I had planned for the class to do an ice breaker, a survey activity. After I had demonstrated it, one student raised her hand and said that she thought they should not be wasting time with this activity. They were all adults and they wanted to learn grammar not make friends. I reacted by snatching up all the cards, my cheeks burning, and moving on abruptly to another activity. In retrospect, I realize that I should have described the benefits of lowering the affective filter at the beginning of the term and explained that in the class we would be doing a lot of pair work, so this was a necessary activity. From this experience, I learned that if I believe an activity is valuable, I need to explain its benefits to my students so that they know we are not just wasting time.

But, Sometimes!

However, I also think it is important for teachers to remain open to student suggestions. Although I am the expert, I also believe students have legitimate ideas about how they want to be taught. For instance, several years ago (around the same time as the previous example, actually) I was teaching a Conversation class. We were learning idioms and listening to a dialogue from the text. I was about to move on to the next lesson, when a student raised her hand and suggested that the class read the dialogue with a partner before moving on. My reaction was the same as before; with burning cheeks I agreed. (I don’t know why I felt so challenged.) Unlike the previous example, however, this was the right thing to do. As soon as I saw how engaged the students were as they read their dialogues, I realized that sometimes students do really know best.

Evaluations

One way to gauge whether or not your students are satisfied customers is by giving them a chance to anonymously evaluate you. In fact, this is a built-in aspect to end-of-semester activities in many programs. However, I have long felt that if you wait until the end of the semester to find out how your students feel, it is too late to do anything about it. I do not believe that teachers always know if they are teaching well. In my experience, some of the classes that I felt the most positive about gave me the lowest of my evaluations. So rather than be surprised at the end of the year, I give students the chance to voice their opinions several weeks in. If a student complains about something, I will either adjust what I am doing or explain to them why I won’t. For example, when I taught a TOEFL Prep class a few years ago, I would occasionally get requests for less homework. I explained to the class that they could always choose not to do all the homework, but, as they were preparing for a rigorous exam, this was what I felt was necessary to ensure their success.

So, are your classes made up of students or customers? Maybe, like me, you try to strike a balance between the two. I would love to hear your experiences. I would also love to hear interesting ideas for conducting class evaluations. I tend to rely on the anonymous questionnaire, but I would love to spice things up a little.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Can You Be a Good Language Teacher if You’re Not Fluent?

By Dorothy Zemach
ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Teacher Trainer
Eugene, Oregon
Email: zemach at comcast dot net

Years ago, at one of the annual JALT (Japan Association of Language Teacher) Conventions, I attended a special session where a panel of experts fielded questions from the audience. One question that was asked was, Is it better to have a good teacher who is not fluent in English, or a mediocre teacher whose English is excellent?

It’s a good question, I think, and I certainly have my own answer (the former!). Often this question comes up in non-English speaking countries when fully qualified local teachers feel pushed out by unqualified native speakers.

However, it’s often not the question that schools or administrators have. Instead, the question might be, Is it better to have a good teacher who is not fluent in English… or not to have an English teacher at all? That’s a question that both influences the existence of English programs (and often that question gets settled by demand) and the self-confidence of teachers.

But I’m Not Fluent

I have personal experience with this, having taught—for years—a language I am not fluent in. I returned from a few years in Japan to take an ESL job at state university in the US. I was called in to see the Chair of the Foreign Languages Department about a week before classes started, and he asked me if I would teach the Japanese 101 class. Of course, the first thing I said was that I’m not fluent in Japanese. “But you were just living there,” he said. (Oh! Again the embarrassment of not having learned more! Does that ever really leave the non-fluent non-native speaker?) Rather than haul out my justifications and explanations, I just shrugged. My level was my level, and it wasn’t going to increase before Monday.

Do You Know Enough to Teach This Level?

He sat there for a moment, and then pulled out the textbook. “Do you know this much?” he asked. I thumbed through the pages for several minutes. Well… yes, actually, I did indeed know that much. In fact, I knew it quite well, because the Japanese that I had learned I had used over and over and over again, so it was solid. I couldn’t discuss the future of the United Nations, but by gosh, I had confidence in my ability to identify stationery items, report on the existence and ages of my siblings, and announce my job title and plans for the weekend.

What it boiled down to was this. He had a fully enrolled section of Japanese 101, and the native speaker teacher scheduled to take the class had just quit. Furthermore, some of the students in the class were seniors who had taken the class the year before and failed it—this was, therefore, their only chance to remove a failing grade from their transcript. And the choices for teachers seemed to be me… or no one. I said yes.

Be Clear About Your Language Level and Abilities

On the first day of class, after going over the usual information in the syllabus—name of textbook, office hours, grading policies—I told the students exactly how much Japanese I knew and how much I didn’t. Most of them, actually, looked quite uninterested; as long as I could teach this class, they didn’t really care about my nationality or non-native speaker status or inability to teach higher-level courses. Some students, though, did look a bit taken aback. So I put it to them exactly as it had been put to me: Their choice was me as a teacher, or no Japanese class. I also assured them that I was an experienced, competent foreign language teacher. I pointed out when the last day to switch classes was, and suggested that they give the class a chance, because they were certainly free to leave if it did not meet their expectations.

No students quit (although a few more added), and at the end of the semester, it was the students who asked me to teach the following semester; and then to teach the second year. I taught the first two years then for the entire time I stayed at that university.

It would be nice to report that while I was teaching the class, I also improved my own level of Japanese through intensive study. But that didn’t happen. I had my ESL classes, I had a young child, I was working on a Ph.D. Life stuff. I think that’s pretty common—while a teacher is in the midst of a full-time teaching job, it’s not so easy to find the time to work on his or her own education at the same time.

Get Support When You Need It

I compensated for my shortcomings where I could. I invited Japanese students in to help with pronunciation. However, I made it clear that these students were my assistants, not my replacements. They had the sounds, but I had the teaching techniques, and I let the class see me setting up the exercises and activities so they knew what role I was playing. When I designed worksheets that were, well, at the edges of my ability, I made sure a native Japanese speaker proofread them for me, so that I was not passing out anything that contained errors. If I couldn’t find a Japanese student on campus, I emailed a friend overseas. And so on.

It’s far worse, I think, to pretend you can’t make any mistakes than to be very clear with both yourself and your class what your abilities are. Students, after all, should be able to respect a non-fluent language learner, since they themselves are non-fluent language learners. But no one respects people who pretend to a skill they don’t have.

Results Build Confidence

The biggest challenge was to my confidence. Even knowing that I was the only choice, I felt sometimes as if I had no right to be in that classroom. I wasn’t fluent! I couldn’t always answer questions outside the textbook (although I knew how to find the answers). What got me back on track when I felt that way was looking at my students. When they entered my class, they knew no Japanese. When they left, they knew some. (Several went on to spend their junior year in Japan, and came back knowing more than I do!) The classes worked because I was a teacher, not because I was (or wasn’t) fluent in Japanese.

Just to be clear—I am not suggesting that an imperfect knowledge of the language is somehow better than a fluent knowledge of the language. Of course not. What I am saying is that fluency is not always necessary to teach a language. You need to know the level you propose to teach, and, to be comfortable, a decent bit above that level. You need to be a good transmitter of information and skills and strategies and enthusiasm and purpose. You need to be honest about what you can and cannot offer.

I do a lot of teacher training these days in other countries, and I sometimes encounter teachers who want to apologize for not being perfect in English. Our first conversations, therefore, are often not about English or even teaching, but about confidence and purpose. If there are non-fluent teachers reading this post, I want to say to you: Look hard at yourself and figure out what you can do; and then be proud of what you do.